COVID19 has disrupted education provision globally. With school closure, most national governments introduced new ways of continuing school education, including digital and distance learning provisions. However, the uncertainty in education provision and digitised teaching-learning has uncovered vast educational disparities and renewed debates on education and inequality. These new challenges to education access urge us to pay attention to how they may accentuate existing inequalities. This ThinkPiece analyses the responses related to the COVID19 crisis and education in Nepal, as well as identifies some new opportunities for collaboration.
New Meanings of Access to Education
Schools in Nepal were closed as soon as the country went into a nationwide lockdown on 24 March 2020. During this school closure, the teaching and learning process was mediated by digital devices such as mobile, computers, laptop, television, or radio. This has drastically changed the meanings of ‘access’ to education, with at least two-thirds of children deprived of education. Access to devices and connectivity are increasingly becoming synonymous access to education, thereby, exacerbating the existing inequalities. Even though most schools gradually reopened after December 2020, many of them continued with the use of internet and technology for school education as schools needed to continue following social distancing. In a country where out of 29,707 public schools, only 8,366 had computers and much less- 3,776 offered IT-based study with the internet connectivity, the digitally-mediated education has posed its own challenges. Radio and television, like online and digital platforms, are also not widely accessible in Nepal. About one third of families own radios here; and less than half have access to broadcast or cable television (Central Bureau of Statistics 2019).
Inequality in terms of access to technology during pandemic is likely to have long-lasting impact on education. The issue of differential access to education has been clearly acknowledged in the new guideline by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) of Nepal, which came into effect on 17 September i.e., after 6 months of nation-wide school closure. The guideline suggests that the concerned local governments planned on identifying students from their school’s current enrolment records, and from the previous enrolment records for those who are not enrolled at present. Based on their status of access to technology, the students were classified as having:
- no access to technological tools and devices
- access to radio, FM
- access to television
- access to computers but no online connectivity
- access to internet and all kinds of information communication technology
The experience of students across Nepal confirms new challenges to educational access. A survey in Tulsipur of Western Terai: only 6 percent of the students in government schools of this region have internet access in their homes. Even in the Bagmati province, with the federal capital city Kathmandu, only 30 percent students have proper internet access. For example, in Nilbarahi School of Kathmandu, students and their parents did not have modern smart phones; the money they paid for the internet compared to their one day’s lunch; hence, the attendance rate of the school was 20 percent. These new challenges to educational access is more prominent in rural areas because wireless broadband is very expensive: currently, 1 megabyte of internet costs NRS 1. Online classes require at least 3G broadband access, and an hour of online visual classes at the lowered video quality would require 300MB internet, making online classes really expensive for the students.
More than ever, access to education is now drastically divided by socio-economic backgrounds of the family and their ability to provide these resources to children. The media reports of student suicides indicate the deep-rooted social and digital inequalities exposed by the pandemic. Nepal already faces a huge public-private divide with private schools offering better infrastructural services at higher price; this is further exacerbated by the need for distance learning via online classes. Students cannot engage in active two-way learning in absence of teacher supervision and classroom interaction during the closure, thus, making parents’ engagement crucial in student learning. But now that the schools are closed, the adverse impacts of being unsupervised at homes is likely to push them towards dropping out of their schools altogether.
The impact of new inequalities is especially prominent in the problems faced by girls and children with disability. Girls have domestic chores to do that prevent them from learning effectively at home; children with disabilities have special needs that do not get addressed in the policies (Alam and Tiwari 2020, 3). The Government of Nepal’s directive on the educational arrangements amidst COVID19 does not specify any provision for the children with disability. With families reconsidering opportunity costs of education amidst economic hardships, many girls are likely to never return to school and be pushed into early marriage or work.
Moreover, the federal government has been making contradictory rules and statements occasionally in terms of operating classes during the pandemic. It instructs teachers to conduct classes in their school, and at the same time prohibits schools to run regular classes. The chaos and confusion among both the school and students is worsened by such a tendency.
The term “remote learning” or “alternative learning” is understood synonymously as “online learning” (Koirala 2020). Besides, as Koirala suggests, the same non-interactive top-down teaching method in remote learning cannot be effective. Instead, effective education could be innovated at local level, with more approaches such as door to door visits, which have been practiced in some places. It is imperative students receive timely feedback, engage in group works, and ensure ample study time at home to improve their learning outcomes (MoEST 2019). For this, substantive transfer of decision-making power from central to local level is needed. This will build local government’s capacity to contextualise education based on geography and socio-economic structure of the area (DRC 2020).
New spaces of collaboration
The pandemic has also opened up new spaces of collaboration and new avenues for innovation to ensuring education access to students. The MoEST has allocated NPR 70 million for online classes in Nepal (Nepali Times 2020). In September 2020, the Government of Nepal also signed an agreement with the World Bank for a grant of 10.85 million US dollars. The grant is provided to the School Sector Development Programme (SSDP) to enable the government in maintaining students’ access to continued basic learning amid COVID19 crisis. The MoEST has now launched a learning portal featuring digital contents (interactive learning games, videos of classroom lessons, audio and ebooks); the content is grouped as per grades and is overseen by Nepal’s Curriculum Development Centre.
There have been several non-governmental initiatives as well. Community Information Network in collaboration with the World Vision International Nepal broadcasts most of its programmes from more than 200 community radio stations across the country. Several development organisations are simultaneously collaborating with the government to deliver distance teaching. For instance, UNESCO, through the Capacity Development for Education (CapED) programme, is working with the Education Development Directorate, and Prime FM Radio. Multilateral agencies such as UNESCO, in collaboration with the Centre for Education and Human Resource Development (CEHRD) delivered a two-phase training to 155 teachers to deliver lessons through online mediums, radio, and television. Open learning Exchange Nepal is offering a curriculum-based learning content that covers all major subjects from grade 1-8, in addition E Pustakalaya – digital library that is designed for students, teachers, and community.
However, the lack of inter-agency collaboration, programmes duplications, and absence of clarity in policies have been one of the key challenges. The existing trends in the governance of new programmes, do not demonstrate proper mechanisms in place to monitor the distribution of these programmes among the beneficiaries. There are chances that similar programmes are broadcasted from multiple radio stations in one geographical area. Likewise, students with no access to radio and television may be completely deprived from educational programmes.
Moreover, the government’s guidelines on conducting alternative education does not make adequate provisions for training/capacity building of the teachers. In the guideline, teachers’ roles are defined as that of facilitators and instructors, but it lacks clarity on how they are going to facilitate and instruct in this unprecedented crisis. The MoEST guideline plans on mobilising the community (teachers, parents, volunteers) to provide the students with self-study materials and textbooks and conduct learning. But it lacks clear strategies on how to mobilise the community, especially in the geographically challenging areas. Here, there is much scope to bring together the expertise and resources of different national and international institutions to provide a more comprehensive programme to address the challenges in education.
This analysis of school education, in the post-COVID19 context of Nepal, shows a number of innovations in ensuring education access to students. A range of radio, television, and online programmes have been introduced to ensure that the students continue to their school education. However, the current crisis has also forced us to rethink the meanings of ‘access’ to education. The blanket approach to access may not work in technologically and geographically challenged contexts and may fail to address the needs of students with different needs. Sole dependence on digital devices and other challenges pertaining to inter-agency collaboration, programme duplication adds more complexities to the already existing structural problems. The effective implementation of school education needs to be sensitive to these emerging circumstances.
Alam, Andaleeb, and Priyamvada Tiwari. 2020. Putting the ‘Learning’ Back in Remote Learning . Issue Brief, UNICEF.
Central Bureau of Statistics . 2019. Nepal – Nepal Labour Force Survey 2017-2018, Third Round. Survey Report, Kathmandu : National Planning Commission .
Democracy Resource Centre Nepal. 2020. School Education and Local Government . Lalitpur: Democracy Resource Centre.
Koirala, Bidya Nath. 2020. What is the status of School Education Amidst Covid19? DIscussion with the Experts Youtube Video. 3 October . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcVKanEPTqo.
Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. 2020. “Students’ Learning Facilitation Guide 2020.” Kathmandu : Government of Nepal.
United Nations. 2020. Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID19 on Children. Policy Brief , United Nations.
Bibhu Thapaliya is pursuing a Masters degree at SOAS, University of London on Chevening Scholarship, the UK government’s global scholarships funded by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and partner organisations.
Bibhu Thapaliya and Uma Pradhan. 2021. ‘New Challenges to Education in Post-Covid19 Nepal’, Think Pieces Series No. 13. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).